Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

How Will Your Child Learn About Death?

Kids' ideas about death come from the strangest places

Kids soak up information like sponges.  It's their job.  

I've written before about how that phrase 'little pitchers have big ears' is much more true than we'd like it to be.  When disaster strikes, adults' first instinct is often to gather more information by gluing themselves to tv and radio.  We talk about it incessantly on the phone, to friends, and to loved ones.

 Kids hear.  They listen.  They learn.  They stress.

They also process that information - sometimes correctly and sometimes in way we can't predict and surely didn't intend. I've been thinking about this for the last few weeks as my radio has talked on and on about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, about the trial of a local high school student who shot and killed several classmates last year, about the initial court appearances of the Batman gunman, and about in the lead up to Congress's legislative initiatives on gun control.

Of Parakeets and Sugar Water

Let me start with a story I read probaby 25 years ago while writing a lecture on children's understanding of language.  It comes from Omega, the journal of death and dying.  

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A father describes how his pre-school daughter woke up screaming in the middle of the night, begging for sugar water.  

  • The first night the parents sighed, gave her the water, and sent her back to bed.  
  • The second night, the child woke screaming again, begging for sugar water.  The weary parents, probably leery of tooth decay, tried to put her off.  She persisted, they gave in, and they all went peacefully to sleep.
  • Probably annoyed with the nightly sleep loss, the third night the parents planned ahead.  The child woke screaming and came running into their room begging for sugar water.  They were united and firm - back to bed!  But as the child screamed and pleaded for sugar water, the father thought he saw real terror in her eyes.  Something real was scaring her.  

After giving his daughter her sugar water, soothing her, and getting a good night's sleep, here's what he pieced together.  .  

  • A few weeks prior to the night terrors began, the girl's pet parakeet had died.  In explaining what had happened, her parents had told her that the bird had a little engine - the heart. The engine had stopped, so the parakeet died.
  • The week before the girl's night terrors began, she had been out on a lake in a small motorboat.  Then the engine died.  They were out of gas.  After refilling the tank, they returned safely to shore.
  • Just prior to the night terrors, the girl's baby brother had been colicky.  Her mother and father were chatting, saying how the sugar water he'd drunk had probably given him gas and made him uncomfortable.

What did this smart little girl conclude?

  • To keep from dying, you need to keep your engine running.  Engines stop when they don't have enough gas.  So you need to drink sugar water to keep up your supplies.

The little girl really was terrified.  Without sugar water, she was going to die.

The point of the original journal article was to discuss the complexity of the word 'die' and how children come to understand it's meaning.  It really is complicated.  People are alive until they die.  Rocks aren't alive, but they can't die.  Dinosaurs are no longer around and have died, but dragons aren't around, but haven't.  George Washington isn't around but is dead in a different sense than dinosaurs are (all dinosaurs are dead, but all humans are not).  People die and can't come back, but engines die and can come back to life.  

What are YOUR kids hearing?

That is all very interesting, but not my point.  My point is that kids listen to the words that are said around them and try to make sense of those words to the best of their ability given their limited knowledge of the world.  

What have your children been hearing about death in the wake of all the recent school shootings?  Some snatched phrases that have come out of my radio . . .

  • Many kids were killed while at school
  • Kids aren't safe in schools
  • Teachers should have guns
  • The shooter is insane
  • The shooter has Asperger's syndrome
  • People with autism don't process emotions
  • People with Asperger's don't talk much and are socially awkward
  • The shooter was mentally ill
  • The shooter was detached and didn't seem to be reacting emotionally
  • There was blood everywhere
  • No one could stop him
  • There is no protection in theaters
  • People were killed while watching Batman
  • We would be safer with more guns.
  • Video games cause violence.
  • Shootings happen because we don't pray in schools any more.

And hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other random phrases and concepts muddled together.  Some correct. Some incorrect.  

How will children process this information?  What stories will they come to tell themselves about why kids in schools are killed?

I don't know.  But I do know that they will use the information they are exposed to to build a picture and an understanding.  And I also know that we, as parents, should monitor both what they hear (and maybe turn off that tv and radio) and also check in with our kids to see what they understand.  And maybe help them, to the best of our limited ability, to understand a little better.  If not to understand why mass shootings happen, to at least help them sort through what is true and what is not.

Building an understanding of the world around them is the whole job of childhood.   Kids need all the help they can get.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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